Law School Myth #6: You Can Trust a Law School’s Employment Numbers

GamblingLaw schools release a decent amount of information about their graduates’ prospects, so it’s easy to think you’re getting the full story.

You’re probably not.

Schools fudge data in a variety of ways, but the most common approach is simply not to report unflattering information on graduates’ salaries.

How Law Schools Fudge Their Employment Numbers

For example, if a school reports a 98% employment rate nine months after graduation, and a median starting salary of $145,000, that looks pretty impressive, right? The average applicant might assume they were almost guaranteed a job paying around $145,000 within nine months of graduation.

Not so fast. Let’s read the fine print:

Employment statistics include full-time and part-time jobs. Salary statistics are full-time only for those who reported salary information.

Hum, what does this mean? Two things, both of which make the median staring salary data essentially worthless.

  • First, only graduates with full-time jobs are included in the starting salary data. So, if you’ve managed to cobble together a part-time minimum wage job or two, or if you’re participating in a “post graduate fellowship” created by the school to provide 20 hours per week of work for a few months, the school is counting you as employed for the purposes of their 98% employment rate. However, they’re not letting your crummy salary drag down their median starting salary data.
  • Second, the median starting salary data only includes people “who reported salary information.” This might seem like a harmless statement of the blindingly obvious, but it’s not. At school after school, the number of graduates reporting salary data is much lower than the number of people reporting employment information. So, the $145,000 median starting salary might be based on data from half, or fewer, of the graduates. Who do you think is more likely to report their starting salary — someone who’s working at a large firm for $160,000 and feels pretty pleased with themselves, or someone who’s doing contract work in a basement for $20/hour? Chances are good it’s the former, and rumor has it that schools aren’t exactly going out of their way to ensure 100% participation from less well-paid graduates.

Unless you know that a very high percentage of a school’s graduating class reported their salary information (and that it’s been audited for accuracy), it’s safe to assume that the actual median starting salary is lower than what the school’s reporting. (And, as you know, almost no one makes the median salary anyway.)

Similarly, unless the school provides the breakdown of part-time versus full-time positions, and provides the type of job, it’s safe to assume that not all of those “employed” are working full-time in jobs that require a law degree.

So What Should I Do?

Basically, you can’t trust the numbers. You have to actually talk to recent graduates and find out what their job prospects look like.

How do you find these people?

You could try asking the school, but they’re unlikely to refer you to anyone who will give you an objective opinion.

A better approach is to locate current students on your own, using the information on student groups that most schools post on their websites. Many of these organizations have their own web pages, with contact information. Voila! These student leaders probably have a pretty good handle on their employment prospects, and those of their classmates.

Another option is to find recent graduates on your own, using the search functionality on Martindale-Hubbell or LinkedIn.

However you find your targets, a simple email saying you’re considering applying to the law school they attended and wanted to get some on-the-ground information about their experience is likely to yield useful feedback fairly quickly.

Keep in mind, however, that employment prospects are closely linked to the overall economy and tend to by cyclical. Someone who graduated in a booming economy will have a very different story to share than someone who graduated during a recession.

Gather information, but put it into context.

Finally, educate yourself. The Law School Transparency Project is a great starting point, but there’s tons of other information out there.

Do your research, and know what you’re getting into.

And trust no one. (Just kidding, sort of.)

Read On:

More myths about law school, coming right up!

Have stories about manipulated employment numbers? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. I just came across the link to this site while reading another (related) article, and I have to say CONGRATULATIONS on finally putting the reality of lawyering into words (!) 🙂 While I’m not a lawyer — I’m a paralegal — I worked in AmLaw 20 firms for 20+ years before finally getting exhausted by the shark tank (!) and am now working with a solo practitioner (civil litigation). For 30 years, I’ve told anyone willing to listen that the biggest problem with the practice of law is the low correlation between law school and what it’s like being a lawyer (!) What medical students learn in school they actually put into practice from Day One in their medical career. NOT TRUE for lawyers!! And this explains why there are so many very unhappy/unfulfilled lawyers. With the new reality of the market forces, cost of tuition, etc., I can only hope that the field of mediation and ADR finally gets its due. 99% of people who need to pursue justice through legal means simply cannot afford to do so. I’ve always said, “Once you’re sued, you’re screwed.” How sad!! ADR — if it could be established such that it became the FIRST STEP before filing suit and therefore could operate on volume — could be the way to pursue justice and fairness in settling 95% of the situations that result in people/companies suing each other. This would benefit our society in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend.

    • You identify a really interesting issue, which is that most people who need lawyers, or some sort of legal intervention (ADR, etc.) can’t afford it. Meanwhile, we have all these unemployed lawyers. Hum…maybe there’s a way to do something about that! Seems like a big opportunity, for the right solution.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • That sounds like a great idea! But how can that be implemented? I would imagine starting small “community law firms” that would be non-profit and funded by community members and foundations. They could recruit unemployed or underemployed law grads and pay them the median salary or adjusted mean salary depending on the amount of funding the community firm would have and the lawyers in the firm could take a small number of cases only from low-income clients at to ensure efficiency. If the experiment works, the idea could spread to other cities with large impoverished populations and maybe give ppl real justice. My knowledge of non-profit funding and the technical aspect of big undertakings like this are limited but I’m just brainstorming.

        Reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography really showed me that our justice system is not really meant to pursue justice and really is tilted in favor of whoever is better connected and has more money. I really wanna change that but I dont know where to start.

        • One interesting model is what some hospitals and clinics in India are doing. They have tiered pricing, so you’d pay a lot if you have money (but you’d get a nice room, fancy food, etc.) and nothing if you don’t have the money (you get the same treatment, but you get the room with no window). Here’s an article. Ironically, because they do such high volume, some of these hospitals are the best in the world at what they do, so they can charge very high prices to paying clients!

          In some sense, I guess that’s the law firm/pro bono model, but that doesn’t really work out, since there’s so much demand, and so little supply. I like your community law firm model – perhaps with tiered pricing that could subsidize clients who were really cash-strapped. Foundations, etc. might make up some of the difference, but, given the cuts to Legal Aid programs, I think it’s risky to wholly rely on that source of funding.

          Maybe Kickstarter for start-up capital, and get donations from Lexis/Westlaw for your legal research budget? Then get all of these legal tech startups to donate all the software you need to run things? Could work!

  2. Law School dropout says

    I’m not a girl, but I have something to say. In 2009, I got accepted to a pretty good law school, that is pretty good by the US News and World Report Rankings. Very soon after I got there, I noticed everyone was unhappy. The 2nd and 3rd year students weren’t finding summer jobs, nor were the grads getting legal jobs after graduation. Everyone was depressed–and this was supposed to be one of the top law schools in the country.

    I felt nervous all the time. So I dropped out.

    The job market has probably changed, but I still don’t see law school as a path to happiness.


  1. […] are telling you. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there, and law schools, to be frank, sometimes prey on this. The reality is that law’s a difficult profession, and it’s not a path to guaranteed riches. […]

  2. […] are telling you. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there, and law schools, to be frank, sometimes prey on this. The reality is that law’s a difficult profession, and it’s not a path to guaranteed riches. […]

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